The playoff push has begun for the Mariners.
You mean the Major League Baseball playoffs?
For the Seattle Mariners?
Isn’t this supposed to be a developmental year?
Well, 2020 has proved to be anything but normal or predictable in sports or life. And following that trend of unexpected or unthinkable developments, the Mariners have a postseason pulse that’s something stronger than faint in a season where they planned to play young players to get experience and a large portion of fans wanted them to lose as many games as possible for the chance to take Vanderbilt’s stud pitcher Kumar Rocker with the No. 1 overall pick in the 2021 draft.
Following four days of dominance over the cratering Texas Rangers, including Monday’s 8-4 drubbing at T-Mobile Park, which completed a four-game sweep and extended their season-high win streak to six games, the Mariners have forced themselves into a final sprint for a spot in the expanded playoffs of this odd 2020 season.
Thanks to a two-week stretch where they’ve played their best baseball of this truncated season, winning 11 of 14 games, the Mariners, now 19-22, left Seattle for a five-game road trip just two games behind the second-place Houston Astros, who were shut out in Oakland to fall to 21-20 on the season.
While in normal seasons, challenging for second in their division with a record hovering near .500 wouldn’t mean much, the expanded playoff plan of 16 teams gives Seattle hope. Eight teams from the American League will qualify for the postseason – the top two teams from each division will get spots along with two wild-card teams with the best remaining records.
The Mariners are also in the mix for that last wild-card spot, sitting just two games behind the Yankees (21-20), who have lost 14 of their last 18 games.
It’s a topic M’s manager Scott Servais doesn’t want in his players’ conversations or minds.
“No, we’re just worried about getting better every day,” Servais said in a postgame video conference. “I said it the other day, you’ve got to get to .500 and we’re not there yet. We’re just learning about ourselves every day out there — good things, bad things, some things in the middle. We’re going on the road and playing two teams we know very little about. We haven’t seen the Giants at all. We don’t know much about the Diamondbacks. This will be a big, big challenge for us.”
Realistically having those three games postponed with the A’s to start the homestand allowed the Mariners to push into position. And their stay in the race may be brief. But with how well they’ve played and how poorly the beat-up Astros have played, they are in it for the moment.
“We are playing really well,” Servais said. “This group is not afraid of anything. We just come to the ballpark with one single goal in mind and how do we get better today. As long as we stay there we’ll be just fine.”
And yet …
“You look up at the standings and we’re close to it with the expanded playoffs,” Dylan Moore said in a postgame video conference. “It would be great to get in there and get all of these young guys, and myself included, some playoff experience. That’d be awesome. That’s what our goal is for the next couple years anyway.”
Of Seattle’s 19 games remaining on the season, there are 12 games against teams with winning records, including six with Oakland (a doubleheader next Monday at T-Mobile and four games in Oakland to close out the season), and the next homestand that features a three-game series with the Padres and a three-game series with the Astros.
After Monday, Houston will also have 19 games remaining with only six games remaining against teams with winning records — four with the A’s and two with the Dodgers — all this week. The Astros play the Rangers seven more times.
Mariners ace Marco Gonzales is a big reason for this run of success to postseason contention both in his own performance and his leadership of the Mariners’ young pitching staff.
Gonzales delivered another strong outing, pitching seven innings and allowing two runs on four hits with no walks and seven strikeouts to improve to 5-2.
“We can’t let that in right now,” said Gonzales of the postseason in video conference. “You know we have a lot of baseball left to play, 20 games or whatever it is. That’s our focus right now, tomorrow’s game. One day at a time. There will be a time for looking up at that scoreboard and watching that, but it’s not right now. We’ve got a lot of time left.”
In eight starts this season, Gonzales has pitched 50 2/3 innings, allowing 17 earned runs for a 3.02 ERA with four walks and 46 strikeouts. He’s pitched 6-plus innings in five of those eight starts and he was held to a 75-pitch limit in his first outing of the season. He is averaging 0.7 walks per nine innings and has an 11.75 strikeout-to-walk ratio.
Mariners broadcaster Gary Hill pointed out that while Gonzales has walked only four batters this season, there have been 118 times this season where a pitcher issued four walks in an outing.
It’s a product of focusing on getting the first strike of every count. Of the 24 batters he faced, Gonzales tallied first-pitch strikes on 16 of them. And of the eight batters that he went 1-0 on, Gonzales came back to get a strike six times to even the count.
“I feel like getting up 0-1 is basically like getting 0-2 because I have so many weapons, so many different options to go to,” he said. “So getting to 0-1 has been a huge advantage for me and then trying to get outs in less than three pitches.”
Gonzales seemed to have no-hit stuff and command in the first few innings. He cruised through the first three innings in order, needing 11 pitches in each.
The Mariners staked him to a quick three-run lead against Ranger starter Kolby Allard, who has not had much success against Seattle this season. For the second straight day, Kyle Seager clubbed a homer in his first at-bat of the game, sending a two-run blast into the cardboard cutouts in deep right-center in the first inning. It was Seager’s seventh homer of the season and pushed his team-high RBI total to 30.
In the third inning, Moore offered another example of his power surge this season, crushing a leadoff homer deep into the area known as The ‘Pen. Per MLB Statcast, Moore’s sixth homer of the season measured 425 feet and had an exit speed of 109 mph.
Gonzales struck out Leody Taveras to start the fourth inning for his 10th straight batter retired. But his only rough patch in the outing followed. He gave up back-to-back singles to Isiah Kiner-Falefa and Shin-Soo Choo. After retiring Nick Solak with a fly ball, Gonzales left a 1-0 sinker over the middle of the plate that Joey Gallo hammered into the gap in right-center to score two runs that cut Seattle’s lead to 3-2.
But the Mariners turned that one-run lead into a six-run lead in the very next inning against Allard. With two outs and the bases loaded, Moore smoked a line drive down the left-field line to score all three runners. Two batters later, Ty France singled to left off Jimmy Hergert, scoring two more runs, both charged to Allard, who was on the hook for all eight runs Seattle scored. In two starts against Allard, Seattle has scored 12 runs against the young lefty.
“To be honest, after Seager’s home run my confidence went through the roof even after giving up two,” Gonzales said. “I know that our offense is clicking right now. So all I had to do is go out and be aggressive, attack the zone and I knew we’d come around to score a lot. And thankfully we put up a big inning. After that, my goal is to put up a shutdown inning. And that’s exactly what I did.”